Prettifying Gospel with the Good Wife

So I don’t really watch television on a regular basis at all. And the only interactions I have with primetime programming are long after it’s originally aired and shown up for rental online.

Which is why I’ve just recently discovered The Good Wife. It’s perhaps not as all-that as this suggests, but it keeps one’s attention well enough, especially if one – like me – enjoys snappy West-Wing, 30 Rock, Sports-Night style writing.

Anyway, at our house we’ve recently started with Season 1 and are working our way forward, so last night I just saw an episode late in the first season that involves the good wife’s husband, a scandal-besotted Chicago pol (basically he’s the Elliot Spitzer of the Midwest), trying to rehabilitate his image by, in part, seeking to publicly atone for his transgressions under the spiritual auspices of one of the city’s most powerful black ministers. Cue inevitable black-church scene on Sunday morning.

Or at least, cue a scene set in what an urban black congregation looks like after it’s been flown out to LA, focused-grouped through made-for-tv content processors, and repackaged for sale in the culturally demilitarized zone of prime-time television (a rather unrevealing still shot of the scene is here; it’s not remarkable enough to make youtube, as far as I can tell).

It’s not impossible, of course, that the architecturally breathtaking church where the scene was shot is the real deal or close to it for an evangelical urban congregation somewhere in Chicago, and maybe it is not entirely implausible that a pastor as politically powerful as the one portrayed in this episode could get to be so on the basis of a sermon style that, judging from the brief glimpses we get of it, compares unfavorably to watching grass grow and paint dry. Whatever. It’s tv.

But I chuckled out loud at the show’s muffed attempt to do gospel music. Of course it was gospel, because there were black people in bright robes swaying and singing (I go on at some length about this culturally universal language of “gospel” here and here). And thank goodness for those unsubtle hints. Otherwise the scene would have resembled nothing so much as a House of Denmark commercial smashed into a United Colors of Benetton ad.

I think the song was “This Little Light of Mine,” or some such. Sooooo, so-far so good. And the singing was ok, so far as it went. But the piano … sweet merciful Martin Cook.

Ok, it wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was very ably played in general. But as an example of gospel  piano, this was … something else. Rhythmically, it was living in another land entirely, with no feel of the enlivening left hand nor any of that ineffable sixth sense of how to play artfully around the down beat that’s necessary to make traditional gospel work well. Someone had clearly taught the keyboard player a few standard gospel-style runs and fills between phrases, which were dutifully dolloped into the arrangement. But the heart of the style was still hopelessly supper-club politesse that never wandered out of the middle two ranges more than a half-octave in either direction. It was like Aretha Franklin singing with one of those portable Casio keyboards parents buy children who claim to want piano lessons but will probably quit after three weeks.

I’ve always wanted to sit in on the script writing workshops that lead up to this kind of scene. Does no one care to get it more than vaguely right culturally, and so, the polished distortion of this kind of anemic, half-recognizable mise-en-scene-by-visual-shorthand arrives before us in direct proportion to the writer’s half-assed effort to understand what he claims to portray? [Scene opens in black church with swaying choir in bright robes singing gospel song jubilantly] … we nailed that, boys, didn’t we?

Or, perhaps more bemusing (and horrifying), this sort of scene is actually the result of the opposite: of a meticulous writerly effort to “get it right,” except the that the effort is just colossally, hopelessly abortive given the cultural distance between tv-script-writing workshops and urban evangelicalism  … the rough equivalent of a court reporter trying earnestly to create a faithful record of a trial by listening through one end of a green-bean can attached to a string.

I actually get the impression that in the case of The Good Wife, the mark was intentionally missed in this scene. That is, the point was probably, I’m guessing, to stage the scene in a way that both clearly says “black gospel choir in church on Sunday” (in order to advance the plot), but that also faithfully upholds the show’s rigorously enforced neo-midcentury-modern aesthetic, even if that means distorting things (stills here and here and here give you the idea of the show’s aesthetic; there’s an entire blog devoted to the show’s style here).

The trademark Good Wife scene is full of airily comfortable rooms of bespoke taste, bright natural light, warm earth tones, and expensively understated fashion, props, and set designs. The point to all this is … well, for one, this is tv. It’s supposed to make us ache with consumeristic desire. But more deeply, I suspect, the show’s carefully regulated and well-heeled aesthetic tastes are meant to reinforce a larger thematic interest in contrasting the beautiful surfaces of upper-middle class urban living in which the plot advances, with the socially ugly, existentially thwarting confinement of the urban bourgeois corporate and political life that hems the good wife in on almost every side.

The chances of getting gospel right in this sort of somewhat overambitious - but entertaining enough - show were probably marginal at best. A little light, indeed. But boy, it sure is purtty.

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  1. Janet B wrote:

    I don’t watch The Good Wife (too much other stuff to keep track of!)…nor have I ever attended a black church in suburban Chicago. However, I suspect that your observations here are probably spot on.

    Off the top of my head…in the final season of The West Wing, Santos made a brief appearance at a black church in LA. What I can recall about that church is that it seemed dark - but that may have been more about the mood of situation itself, which was sad and emotionally charged. I’d have to go back and watch it to comment on the music in the episode.

    I watched an episode of Harry’s Law recently where a black couple had adopted a Chinese “orphan” (only to discover that the girl was kidnapped from her parents when they showed up to reclaim her). The six-yr-old invited her biological parents to come and hear her sing in the children’s choir at her church. They sang (of course) This Little Light of Mine. And the church…looked like a church. There didn’t seem to be enough room for everybody there and the kids were squished in front of the stage. But the music was sweet and infectious - and very touching.

    I would surmise that, with the nature of episodic television being what it is, time constraints rule the day. In other words, they do the best they can in the time allotted to them. Sometimes close just has to be good enough.

  2. irishlad wrote:

    i watch the good wife and mad men and the sopranos and boardwalk empire.and past episodes of the hill st guys don’t know what you’re missing

  3. quartet-man wrote:

    I’ve seen a few episodes of the Good Wife recently. I am not sure what got me started whether a commercial or just tuning in to see CSI Miami and the shows having been delayed, or even just having the TV on in preparation for CSI (which I haven’t really watched for the past several years).

  4. Janet B wrote:

    (Not trying to go ot here, Doug…but irishlad started it!)

    irishlad - Hill Street! I was a devotee from when it first premiered (1981 - gulp). I now watch every Weds night…nostalgia can be a wonderful thing! :)
    When I was in Bible college, a group of us gathered every week in the dorm mom’s apartment to watch HSB…mostly to daydream about LaRue & Washington…

    The BEST show on tv right now is Smash. Even if you don’t know a thing about musical theater (I’m in that category), it doesn’t matter. It’s about the characters…doesn’t hurt that the music is fantastic, too. I saw an interview with Debra Messing, who said that she compares it to The West Wing. (You don’t need to be a political geek to love the show, because it’s about the people.)

    As for what I’m missing…I mostly stay away from cable series (exceptions being The Closer and Leverage). My husband is a huge fan of Justified, but I just don’t enjoy watching people getting their fingers cut off or being set on fire. I’m a lover, not an immolator.

  5. Janet B wrote:

    Aha! This is from Monday’s episode of Smash. (The tag line states “Smash Goes Gospel.” It’s almost like I ordered it. tee hee)

    (Gosh, I hope that link works! I won’t know until I try to post it…)

    Kat McPhee is no Whitney, but…a noble try, nonetheless. :)

  6. ode wrote:

    5, nice! btw,Janet, did you see
    “Corinna, Corinna”? Beautiful use of the Little Light, by a choir and especially in the end scene

  7. Wade wrote:

    The Good Wife is Da Bomb!! It is fun how they meld so much of real life situations in to the show with always a little twist… Fred Thompson has been on a few times as a fellow litigator and those are always fun shows!!!

    The whole church situation here was pretty close to what I saw a few weeks back… except the church I was at was better… but the Pastor has the power in the community!!!

    I really do not think many WHITEYS could handle or believe what really goes down in a black church!! It is too far out and not even Brooklyn Tab truly resembles what goes down in most black churches. Even more off are the projects I have seen where the artist went to Brooklyn Tab, does not even reflect it either… but it is white people trying to go be black!!

    Thanks for bringing some TV Culture to our collective attention!!

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